Notice more people holding open elevator doors, sending thoughtful notes or attending church services these past few months? According to a survey conducted by University of Michigan psychologist Christopher Peterson, PhD, and Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania, Americans have become kinder, more grateful and more spiritual since the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Peterson and Seligman analyzed more than 1,000 pre- and post-Sept. 11 responses to an online questionnaire posted on a Web site they developed to determine the extent to which people see themselves as having 24 character strengths the researchers identified, in-cluding kindness, fairness, courage, social intelligence, hope and humor. They compared 451 responses submitted before Sept. 11 with 625 responses submitted between Sept. 12 and Nov. 30 and found significant increases in six of the virtues they looked at: love, gratitude, hope, kindness, spirituality and teamwork.
"These seem to be strengths that involve other people or, in the case of spirituality, the big-picture meaning of life," says Peterson. "When a terrible event occurs we confront our own mortality and we ask what is important--I think what these changes reflect is that other people are important."
The data revealed a decline in the level of only one quality they measured--love of learning. "This was only a very slight decline," explains Peterson, "and may reflect an understandable overload with media coverage of the terrorist attacks."
To the researchers' surprise, reported levels of courage and mercy stayed the same. Furthermore, women's strengths changed less than those of males, says Peterson, perhaps because women normally score higher than men do in areas such as kindness and generosity and had less room for improvement.
Several months later, participants have continued to complete the questionnaire on the study's Web site, and scores from the same six qualities have remained high, Peterson notes. He says "only time will tell" whether scores will drop to their pre-Sept. 11 levels or whether the changes will be more long-term, but he expects they will remain high "as long as terrorism is front and center."
Data from the online questionnaire will become part of a published classification system of human strengths and virtues Peterson and Seligman are developing through the Values in Action Institute, a nonprofit organization funded by the Manuel D. and Rhoda Mayerson Foundation in Cincinnati. They hope to complete the volume--which will include data and chapters on all 24 character strengths--next year.
"We are trying to give the field a vocabulary to talk about character and a way of measuring it," says Peterson. "We are not going to improve on Benjamin Franklin or Aristotle just by listing things."